Why Touchy Feely Is the Most Important Class Offered at Stanford Biz School — and What You Can Learn from It

October 1, 2019

Brian Lowery isn’t a fan of the term “soft skills.”

“I feel like it has the connotation of not being important stuff,” Brian says. A professor of organizational behavior and a senior associate dean of academic affairs at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), he finds the label too dismissive and somewhat off-target.

But as the recognition of the importance of aptitudes such as effective communication, leadership, teamwork, problem solving, and creativity continues to soar in the workplace, their name isn’t their only problem. Too often, companies write them off as immutable and unteachable — either you’ve got them or you don’t.

And Brian is here to tell you that’s just not the case.

At the GSB, the faculty includes Nobel Prize winners, best-selling authors, Silicon Valley pioneers, former Fortune 100 CEOs, and two Secretaries of State. And yet the school’s most famous class is taught by none of them. No, the class that generates the most buzz among students — and alumni — at what some consider the world’s top business school is Organizational Behavior 374: Interpersonal Dynamics.

The course has become a rite of passage at the GSB and is taken by at least 90% of the student body. It’s been the most popular elective at the school for five decades. It might well be called Tough Talks or Courageous Conversations.

But what it’s actually called is Touchy Feely. As a name, you can’t get much softer than that. As an objective — essentially teaching self-awareness — you can’t get much harder.

“What we hope to do is give the students a chance to see themselves and others more clearly,” Brian says. “It’s really an opportunity that people rarely have: to get honest feedback. And it’s not just feedback one on one, like from your spouse or your manager or your friend. But it’s that feedback in the context of a group that adds emotional heft and a frisson of tension.” It’s a chance to see yourself as others see you, to uncover your blind spots.

Out of that comes something memorable, enduring, powerful.

“We make epiphanies,” Brian says.

How Touchy Feely is structured

In the 2018-19 school year, Stanford offered four sections of the class each quarter. Each section has 36 students who are divided into three 12-student T-groups (the “T” stands for “training” but could also represent talk or trust or even tears).

“When they talk about Touchy Feely,” Brian says, “what they’re talking about is the experience of the T-group. That’s where a lot of the work happens.”

The class has six lecturers and each T-group has two Stanford-trained facilitators. The course includes readings from the Interpersonal Dynamics Reader, written by long-time Touchy Feely instructors David Bradford and Mary Ann Huckabay. But it has also included chapters from Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most and The Relationship Cure and articles from Harvard Business Review and Scientific American. Every week, there is a lecture and sometimes there are exercises for the section. “The lecture is designed to get them the tools,” Brian says, “the framework to make sense of what’s going on there. But the experience of it is in the T-group.”

The T-groups meet each week for sessions that run three to five hours. They also have one weekend retreat that includes 16 hours of T-group work. Sometimes the sessions have a prompt that comes from the readings or lectures, but other times the meetings start with everyone sitting in a circle in an extended and uncomfortable silence before things kick into gear.

One classroom exercise is called The Influence Line. Each student, without uttering a word, is expected to move their 11 fellow students into a line that starts with the classmate who has the most influence on that person to the classmate with the least influence.

Talk about no place to hide. It’s the playground again, choosing sides for teams — but with your leadership juice, not your kickball talents, being “publicly” appraised.

Nearly everyone who has taken the class makes a point of the frequent tears that the T-group sessions prompt. “People opened up to a point where we could be crying multiple times during a session,” says Siqi Mou, who graduated from the GSB in 2016 and launched a skin care consultation called HelloAva, “because you are sharing something that is a dark secret or something that is a hard truth that you have never shared with someone before.” And beyond the tears are the painful silences, heated confrontations, and life-changing ahas.

How Touchy Feely operates

Over time, the course has developed and fine-tuned some important principles that make it remarkably effective.

One of them could be called the Las Vegas Rule: Everything that is said in group, stays in group. There is absolute confidentiality. That creates the safety students need to take the emotional risks that lead to breakthrough understandings and learnings.

A second principle is that there aren’t any discussions about what happens outside of T-group. “It’s how do I feel in this moment,” Brian says, “in this interaction with you. So, there’s an immediacy about it.” Also, if students talk about events outside the classroom, their classmates can only guess or speculate about what really happened.

“If everyone saw what happened,” Brian notes, “there’s not only your view, there’s your view and everyone else’s view. You might find out that you feel very strongly that this is what happened, but you might hear, ‘That’s not it at all,’ because of how other people saw it.”

Another principle is not crossing the net — sticking to your own perspective. “I think it’s hard to overestimate the power of the ability to engage with someone else where you’re not assuming something about them or ascribing motive to them,” Brian says. “That is shockingly hard to do.” But the refrain of “not crossing the net” is constant in Touchy Feely.  “It’s like you can always talk about your experience and someone’s behavior,” Brian says, “but that’s it.” In practice, this will often lead people to frame their conversations by saying, “When you did this [whatever this may be], it made me feel . . .”

Finally, while teaching students how to give and take honest feedback, Touchy Feely stresses the importance of making sure that honesty is driving toward something larger. “It’s not just honesty,” Brian says, “because honesty can be wielded as a weapon, right? It’s honesty in the service of improving performance and self-awareness where you are concerned about understanding the experience of others.”

To be effective, criticism needs to be delivered respectfully and blended with positive feedback. GSB students are taught to temper their feedback with praise or appreciation.

Results of Touchy Feely

Touchy Feely provides students with tactics for both giving and receiving feedback. Delivering feedback well includes leading with your intentions, holding a conversation (rather than an extended rant), focusing on behavior rather than speculating on intentions, and asking what the other person is hearing and what they need from you.

Receiving feedback well — something most professionals have probably never had any instruction on — includes holding your defensiveness at bay, asking questions in pursuit of genuine understanding, repeating what you’re hearing, and expressing your thanks.

Of course, when it comes time to build new skills, instruction will only take you so far. Just as you can’t become a great basketball player simply by watching the NBA and reading Basketball for Dummies, you can’t master feedback without a lot of practice. Nothing is as important as the work the T-groups engage in every week.

“It’s jarring if you perceive yourself to be one way your whole life, and then hear that’s not actually how one person sees you, nor the other 10 people in the room,” says Andy Katz-Mayfield, cofounder and CEO of Harry’s grooming products and a 2011 graduate of the GSB. “You realize you’re the one whose calibration is off sometimes.”

Siqi turns to Touchy Feely skills regularly at HelloAva. “Running a startup, obviously, has a lot of ups and downs,” Siqi says. “It’s not always going to be rosy and beautiful. It’s a lot of hardship and setbacks. And even during those times, you need to inspire your team to be on the struggle with you together. It’s through Touchy Feely that I learned how to communicate these kinds of difficult messages and to keep everyone motivated.”

Animesh Agrawal graduated from the GSB in 2018 and works in Mumbai for The Blackstone Group. Touchy Feely was, he says, one of the reasons he chose Stanford, and he hasn’t been disappointed. He views the tools he mastered in the class as both a new skill set and a new language.

Animesh cites difficulties he was having recently with his boss. “In a normal situation,” he says, “we would have just let it go. But equipped with the tools that I learned in Touchy Feely, I took him out for a coffee and just had a conversation with him. ‘OK, I noticed this has been happening between us. Is it something about this or something about that?’” Instead of festering, the tension and frustration were converted to trust and camaraderie.

“I actually found that after taking this class,” Siqi says, “my relationships with my parents, family, and my spouse have also improved because of the way the class taught you to frame your conversations, especially when it’s a difficult conversation and you’re trying to express your anger but in a way that is constructive.”

Implications of Touchy Feely

Lesson No. 1 from Stanford? These so-called soft skills are better thought of as core skills, or even cornerstone skills. LinkedIn studied 120 skills in 100 different U.S. metro areas last year and communication was the most in-demand skill overall.

Lesson No. 2 is that these skills can be taught.

Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the best-selling Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, says there is plenty of evidence that soft skills “aren’t only valuable — they’re teachable. We have a responsibility to teach the skills that matter most.”

Lesson No. 3 is that teaching these skills requires — and merits — an investment.

Companies can’t simply recruit for soft skills. Consider this: Stanford has the most selective business school in the world. Only 6% of applicants are accepted. The average admitted student had a 3.73 undergraduate GPA and a 732 on the GMAT. And yet despite the fact that Stanford is able to attract the cream of the crop from 63 different countries, the school still sees the need to teach these skills. Companies need to follow suit.

Granted, it isn’t easy. The GSB has refined Touchy Feely over a half-century and invests enormous amounts of time, thought, and resources into making this elective class work: lecturers to provide the cognitive framework; facilitators to oversee the small-group sessions; classroom time each week; and three to five hours of T-group each week.

Companies can send managers to the weeklong summer version of Touchy Feely that Stanford offers ($16,000) or the four-day “weekend” course ($7,000). Other business schools, including the  London Business School, Harvard, Wharton, MIT, and INSEAD, offer similar executive education options.

Companies can also develop their own learning and development programs to deliver courses that teach effective communication, teamwork, or creativity. Or they can turn to existing online courses to elevate the soft skills of leaders, managers, and frontline employees. LinkedIn Learning, for example, offers courses on Self-Awareness and on Giving and Receiving Feedback (both for considerably less than the two-year tariff at the GSB).

But whether your company chooses to develop soft skills courses or outsource them, it shouldn’t choose to ignore them. Effective communications and productive feedback are not only gifts for recipients, they’re gifts for your company.

When Stanford first offered Interpersonal Dynamics in 1968, it was a pioneering course that gave a nod to the era’s pursuit of emotional expression and bowed to the popular call to “tune in.” Today, courses that teach soft skills are increasingly a bread-and-butter staple at the world’s top business schools, an acknowledgement of both the need for these aptitudes in any effective company and the difficulty of mastering these skills without instruction.

So, whether your company is looking for candidates with an aptitude for creativity or a mastery of persuasion, go to school on Stanford — stop searching and start teaching.

Make some epiphanies.

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